Minerva against Arache: struggles between ethics and aesthetics, between a weaver and a goddess

Growing up, Minerva (or Athena) was an early point of reference for feminist empowerment in a context where the representation of strong women was severely limited. Athena, "the Goddess of WarCivilization, WisdomStrategyArtsJustice and Skill", was a woman that was powerful not only in regards to traits considered feminine but specially in regards to masculine ones.

The story of Arachne is disseminated as a curious tale of a Roman and Greek past, and it arrives nowadays as a cautionary tale for self-agrandizing one's ego. On a deeper reading there is much more cautions to be read in this tale of two women that fight to measure their ability for weaving, but also for their talents to produce beauty. I consider that revisiting this story offers a potential to review the role of the artists in our capacity to question power, and criticize society with the tools we have at our disposal.

The known version of the story of Arachne and Minerva is a late Roman addition to the classical Greek mythology, and is the one published by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Book VI. One of the exciting features of this tale is the questioning of authority. Arachne's challenge to Minerva can be read as the challenge of the art worker being punished for challenging the status quo. In a space where talent and prosperity are understood as coming from the gods, Arachne, a hand-worker, not only disagrees but voices her dissent.

On the other hand, Minerva weaves from the position of the hegemonic narrative in place and the power to punish humans: she portrays all the times when mortals have tried to challenge the gods and ended punished. Her work displays hegemonic power relations as having dangerous repercussions to those who contest them.

Arachne weaves a denounce of the times where gods have failed morally and have abused of their power. She depicts particularly the times in which male gods have sexually abused young woman by deceitfully transforming themselves into animals. Her work successfully weaves ethics and aesthetics. In this line, Arachne’s work can be anachronically read as a feminist denunciation of abuse of power and sexist abuse in circumstances of power—which includes all the transfigurations of Zeus to ‘conquer’ women. It removes the moral superiority of gods and thus the moral right they have to punish.

Unlike what the story seems to tell, Arachne does not lose the contest. Instead, Minerva enacting hegemonic power, destroys the work of subversive art and resorts to authoritarian use of physical force by hitting her with her spindle. Arachne, ashamed, proceeds then to hang herself and Minerva brings her back to life in order to punish her, by animalizing her, that is, by converting her into a spider. For modern humans, spiders weave without an artistic purpose and thus here the punishment is to deny the recognition of the artistic purpose and value. You will weave forever but never again you will be able to use these tools for speaking truth or beauty.

Minerva with her actions proves Arachne critique to be right.

Literary source:
OVID, Metamorphoses, Book VI (in Latin)
OVID, Metamorphoses, Book VI (A.S. Kline version) http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph6.htm